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A Cardinal's Fall From Grace

Nov 21, 2002 | USA Today Few in the small, sleepy Catholic diocese here had seen anything like young Father Bernie Law.

The new priest was full of energy and ideas about the civil rights movement roiling 1961 Mississippi. As editor of the diocesan newspaper, he wrote award-winning editorials supporting integration. When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Father Bernie dragged his bishop from the red brick rectory downtown to make a condolence call.

"You knew Bernie was headed for higher places," recalls Bill Minor, a newspaperman who covered the civil rights years in Mississippi. "He was too bright, too capable, too much of an intellectual asset."

Such observations followed Bernard Law through his rise to the highest reaches of the U.S. Catholic Church. His immense intelligence and pastoral gifts fed speculation that the man who now heads the church in Boston and is the highest ranking U.S. cardinal could someday become the first pope from the USA.

But the Catholic Church's handling of the child sexual abuse scandal changed all that. Like the hero in a Shakespearean tragedy who slips from grace, Law too, has fallen. Since the release of church records this year showing that he and other Boston officials transferred priests from parish to parish despite records of abuse, victims groups have vilified him. His priests have asked him to resign. Fellow bishops privately blame him for the scandal. Friends in the laity have condemned him.

"Many of the people he thought were stalwart friends have not supported him," says Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and contributor to the recently published Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law: The Man and His Witness. "It weighs on him heavily."

Law, 71, has borne much of the controversy in semi-seclusion. But in recent weeks he has become more public and more contrite. He has met with sexual abuse victims and their families. He has stepped out from behind the altar at Mass to give tearful apologies.

In a candid and emotional interview with USA TODAY this week, Law said his sessions with those wounded by abuse have been a painful lesson about the devastation to victims, their families, the church and society.

Abuse had 'ripple effect'

"The extent of this is something I was not aware of, and certainly I have learned much more painfully the impact of this on others," he says, voice heavy with feeling. "Each encounter with a victim survivor is opportunity to learn yet more deeply both the terrible personal trauma and also the ripple effect that this has."

But Law shies from talking about why he allowed known abusers to remain in contact with children. The issue is at the center of several pending lawsuits, so he can't discuss it. But even if he could, "why" is "not a question I can really answer," he says, citing a Latin phrase that translates as "No one can be a judge in his own case." "I really think that takes a certain perspective of time to understand," he says.

"They were trying to run the church as if it is 1950 when it is 2002," says Notre Dame theologian the Rev. Richard McBrien.

But in the 1950s, Law was very much in touch with the changing society.

The son of an aviation pioneer working in Latin America, he grew up fluent in Spanish, a skill that has endeared him to immigrants. He was valedictorian at a mostly black high school in the Virgin Islands; at Harvard he majored in medieval history and went door-to-door for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He studied at seminaries in Louisiana and Ohio before taking vows in 1961.

His first assignment, at age 30, was as assistant pastor in Vicksburg, Miss. It was a time of change in the church, and the South. "I felt attracted to the South specifically because I felt the system in place (segregation) was wrong," Law says. "I felt the way to overcome it was in the message of Christ and of the church."

The new priest almost single-handedly dragged his diocese into civil rights. He helped establish Mississippi's first Human Rights Council and other committees seeking civil rights for blacks. He championed adult literacy programs, convincing church officials to provide classrooms and volunteers. "He would not let you alone when he was onto something," Minor recalls. "He could get people to do things they didn't want to get involved with."

By 1968 Law was sent to Washington, D.C., to head the ecumenical office of what is now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He returned to Jackson in 1971, the second in command of the diocese. "He had the talent and ability to take him anywhere," recalls Monsignor Michael Flannery, vicar general of today's Jackson diocese, who was a young priest from Ireland when Law was in Mississippi.

But it is now alleged that during those years, Law was told priests were abusing children. One accuser was Dorothy Morrison, a mother of three boys. In the early 1970s, "everyone thought he was wonderful," she recalls. She and her late husband were friends with Law, and with the Rev. George Broussard, Law's former classmate. Broussard was like an uncle to her sons. He would tuck them into bed and take them to the family's lakeside cottage.

Then one day in 1973 her husband took a call from a parishioner, warning that Broussard had inappropriately touched his son. "My husband called Father Broussard to the house and talked with him," Morrison, now 71, recalls. It became clear that Broussard had molested their two older sons. The priest begged forgiveness and promised to get help. Her husband, who died in 1999, talked with Law, and was assured the problem would be addressed, she says.

Law admitted in a deposition he learned of the accusations against Broussard in 1973. He has said he could not recall what he did, only that he left the diocese soon after that to become a bishop in Missouri.

Morrison, who later learned that her third son also had been molested, says her husband "lost respect for everything connected with the church." She and her sons filed suit against Law and the Jackson archdiocese earlier this year.

Another alleged victim, Mark Belenchia, 47, of Hattiesburg, Miss., says his late mother, May, went through the same denouement with Law. A fierce civil rights activist, her appreciation began to falter after she said she told Law her son was being molested by a parish priest who continued in the ministry. Belenchia says the incidents drove both him and his mother from the church." After she talked with Law, she never had any use for him," he says. "She'd call him a 'fast tracker.' "

Law left Mississippi later in 1973, when he was appointed bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese. Then 42, the new bishop oversaw the welfare of some 50,000 Catholics in southeastern Missouri.

The pattern of social activism continued. Law established a center for Vietnamese refugees and a still-thriving center for the homeless. Few were surprised when Pope John Paul II appointed Law archbishop of Boston in 1983 and cardinal a year later.

Thomas O'Connor, a Boston College historian, says that while the church recognized Law as a brilliant mind and social reformer, it also recognized something else: loyalty.

"Those picked to be archbishops were chosen because of their personal commitment to John Paul II," O'Connor says. "They demonstrated a loyalty to the basic fundamental and traditional principles, against issues like birth control and married priests."

Fierce protection of the church

But there was more than just fealty to church doctrine. "Built into this loyalty is the idea of protecting the church from all comers," O'Connor says.

Law was soon confronted with sexual abuse in Boston. A cascade of civil suits have pried loose internal archdiocesan correspondence that shows he was warned in the 1980s of priests who had abused children. Known pedophiles were given counseling, then transferred from parish to parish; accusers were ignored or given settlements to buy silence.

Law now admits the past 10 months have taught him hard realities about pedophilia that he was not aware of.

Back in the 1980s, he says, he believed treatment offered some assurance that a priest could be returned to the ministry. Now, Law says he knows differently. "I would now say that nothing that anyone goes through in terms of treatment is going to be sufficient," he says. "I've learned that. In that sense, that's a change."

But some, including Belenchia, believe it was not just ignorance. "It was ambition. He knew that dealing with this publicly was not a way to get on the fast track," he says.

"There was a certain arrogance built into his personality," says journalist Minor. "I suppose it comes with the territory. You'd see it more as he rose in the church."

McBrien, an expert on church hierarchy and politics, is less charitable. "The man finds it impossible to even consider he is wrong about anything."

There is evidence that the past year's events have done much to humble Law. His writing and preaching make constant reference to the need for reconciliation, which he says has been the lodestar of his faith from the beginning. "It was a constant theme in my preaching in Mississippi, too, in another context," he says.

Glendon, Law's friend, sees a new chance for redemption. "He has had to walk his own way of the cross this year," she says. "Hopefully, out of it will come graces for him and the people he serves."

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